Katori Hall's The Mountaintop dares to imagine conversations in Martin Luther King Jr.'s motel room the night before his assassination. Though entirely fictional, it naturally takes on very real themes surrounding the experience of African Americans, as well as exploring Martin Luther King Jr.'s personal experience. I recently got the chance to dicuss Twin City Theater Company's upcoming production with director Dustin Yocum, who shed light on the how he guided his small cast, comprised of Cedric Jones and Kimmy Schofield, through this intense play. 

Smile Politely: First of all, what is this show about and what are the main themes?

Dustin Yocum: A tired, worn down Martin Luther King Jr. returns to his shabby motel room on a rainy night in Memphis after giving what would turn out to be his final speech. The next morning, King will be assassinated on balcony outside the Lorraine Motel. The play is a fictional reimagining of what transpired in that motel room on the eve of his assassination.  The show starts with King returning to the motel after sending out his right hand man, Ralph Abernathy, to buy cigarettes. He calls down to the front desk for room service. Within minutes, Camae, a beautiful and foul-mouthed motel maid knocks at the door with a cup of coffee. How the rest of the night plays out is better experienced than explained.

Thematically, I’d say this show dives into a bunch of areas. The major themes that stick out to me, and what I’ve really tried to bring forward as the director, are the duality of being a figurehead versus being a private human, coping with death, and the struggle of carrying the progress of humanity on your shoulders.

SP: There’s a national conversation right now regarding the experiences of African Americans, particularly around police brutality, but also around factors including mass incarceration, representation, and even Kanye West’s tweets. How does this play, which was written in 2009, interact with that conversation? Have any of those topics made their way into the rehearsal room?

Yocum: While this play couldn’t predict Kanye West’s tweets, it certainly touches on issues of police brutality, mass incarceration, protest violence, the struggle for dignity and representation, and several other sociopolitical and economic barriers to equity that African Americans, and the entire black community, face. The characters in the play are always having these conversations; sometimes with themselves, sometimes each other, and occasionally, the audience.

We haven’t had these conversations during rehearsals. We haven’t needed to. These actors live with these issues every day and can draw on personal experiences to relate to this material in a way that I never could. I never wanted to moderate or force these discussions during the process. We did have an interesting discussion about Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief though. 

SP: How did that go?

Yocum: In trying to get the emotional arc of the last half of the play right, I brought up DABDA (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). The character arc of King mirrors this process as we move toward the end of the action. We touched on these individual stages and broke down the script into parts where there is a major shift from one stage to the next to help make sense of King's internal reactions to his external world.

SP: Did you pick the show? What made you want to work on this show?

Yocum: I actually didn’t pick the show, but I wish I could say I did. I immediately fell in love with the script after I read it. Twin City Theater Company had already decided on the show prior to bringing me on board. Originally, it was scheduled to go up in February, but I was unavailable during that time working on another show. I emailed back and forth with John Tilford, essentially begging him to move the show back so I could direct.  Luckily, they were able to move some things around and we made it work.

I think this show hits on all levels.  It’s funny, sad, nostalgic, playful, serious, timely. It’s also intimate.  Being a shorter, two-person play, the actors really bring you on a forceful ride through human emotion in a way that is instantly relatable.

SP: What have been the challenges of working on this show?

Yocum: The most difficult challenge has been figuring out the practical effects.  I don’t want to delve too much into the specifics to avoid spoilers, but there are several carefully crafted special effects that my stage manager, Ali Cornell, and I have been wracking our brains to figure out how to fit into the space.  The good news is, I think we got it.

SP: What can the audience look forward to? Any moments, characters, costumes, set elements?

Yocum: Aside from the aforementioned practical effects, I think the audience should look forward to the interplay between the characters. Cedric and Kimmy have really dedicated themselves to their roles and it will absolutely show. There is an immediacy in their performance and an intimacy between them that will pull you directly into their world on stage. Their talent impresses me every night.

We’ve also tried to physically bring the audience into the motel room.  The SoDo theatre, for those that haven’t been before, is a very large space, but with strategically placed curtains and set design, we’ve tried to bring the audience into the room with the actors, which I hope adds to the experience.

SP: Anything else you’d like to tell a potential audience member?

Yocum: The only thing I would add is that this is the kind of theatre we should be making and seeing. As a community, we need to support telling all stories, not just the safe ones. There is some great theatre happening in Champaign-Urbana, but it needs to be more diverse. We have a responsibility to make sure everyone feels like they have a space to see and create their stories. If that means one less production of Oklahoma per year, I think it’s a good tradeoff.

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The Mountaintop, directed by Dustin Yocum, will be presented by Twin City Theater Company at the SoDo Theatre May 11-13 and May 17-20. For tickets and more information, click here

Photos by Dylan Tiger